Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Masterpiece of Law vs. Grace


Oh, so long ago I fell in love with the incredible story penned by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables .  Such a literary powerhouse long before Alain Boubeil and Claude-Michel Schonberg wrote their musical based on the story in 1980. I fell in love all over again.  This time with haunting melodies and an exquisite score.    I loved it even more when I was privileged to see the first touring company’s production in Salt Lake City and the flame rekindled when I saw it again in Portland. 

Yesterday I saw the motion picture, Les Miserables, the Musical.  It was stunning.  The fire still burns.

On the way home, my son asked which production I liked better, the stage or the film?  I love them both!  Both speak to me at different levels.

The stage offers a kind of magic that can’t be duplicated on film.  With a rotating stage with sets in motion, and we end up traveling more in the stage version than in the movie — a mind-blogging feat.  The passion of experiencing the story live in the moment is unmatched.

However, the film allowed me to see more depth of character than the stage production allows.  It’s crazy.  The film is 90% identical to the stage show (with one new song, the sensitive "Suddenly", which I loved) - but, it feels so different. It feels fresh and new and somehow also like it has always existed - a contradiction in terms, no doubt, but there it is. This is not a replica of the stage show, but it is entirely true to it in every way. I Love it! It is unlike any movie musical ever made. And, it is a masterpiece.

For example, "Lovely Ladies" is less of a showstopper than it is on stage, but it paves the way for the tremendous "I Dreamed a Dream," a one-shot, close-up rendition that shatters any known recording. We've never seen a Fantine who had to sing through tears and a runny nose. It all adds to the impact of the song.  Anne Hathaway’s "I Dreamed A Dream"… Is this the most singularly astonishing movie musical moment of the new era of musical movies?  She is able to instantly conjurs pure movie musical magic from out of thin, thin air and knocks it all clear out of the park.

Hugh Jackman… now there is performer!  For the first time I saw the heart of Jean Valjean.  Even Russell Crowe surprised me as the frosty Javert.  I enjoyed the softer edge Eddie Redmayne… but Aaron Tveit is an absolute standout as Enjorlas.  

The real change for me was Hooper's claustrophobic, in-their-face close-up filming style for much of the singing, especially when married with the astoundingly gritty and shockingly authentic costume, scene and sound design.  All of this collectively creates an anomalously affecting and nearly too-real atmosphere. It hit me in the gut.  It reached the heart. 

Dark, yes - but that makes the hope and light all the whiter and purer. There is a whole heaven of a lot of redemption and glory by the final reel to go with the hellish blood, guts, gore and depression that abounds. 

With all the subtle difference, the story remains the same…  an intertwining story of characters living in the turmoil of 19th-century France. It's a story of poverty and affluence, broken dreams, love, and redemption.

One of the greatest tales ever told flowed from the pen of writer who didn't flinch before man's misery and sin, but found hope in God's grace and the ability of some to receive it. Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables explores vital Christian territory - despair vs. hope, condemnation vs. redemption, works vs. faith, and legalism vs. grace - not as a theological treatise or Sunday sermon, but in the form of a story.

Despair vs. hope, condemnation vs. redemption, works vs. faith, and law vs. grace - the power of Les Mis is in the tension created by characters representing opposites. 

Every character in the story experiences the weight and tragedy of our fallen world. They all face inevitable disappointments - as we do. Jean Valjean leaves the work house hoping to start afresh, only to be haunted by his past at every turn. Fantine sings of a life of love and hope, even as her life spirals apart, sending her begging in the streets, selling her hair, and selling her body. She is sick and dying as she sings:
I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
I had a dream my life would be
When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving . . .
So different from this hell I'm living,
So different now from what it seemed . . .
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed . . .

Other characters feel it too. Young Cosette sings of a "castle on a cloud," a dreamland where life is sweet, and she isn't working like a slave for her foster parents. Eponine sings of lonesome, unrequited love in "On My Own." A group of young students are disgusted by the oppression of the poor, and they dream of a revolution that sets the people free.

There's a grinding, heartbreaking kind of tragedy that threads its way through Les Miserables. You can't help but feel the sting of a fallen world. That feeling of relentless heartbreak sends the characters to God and to one another wondering if there's any relief, any hope, any way out of the darkness.

The strongest message is the age old question between law and grace.  The message of Law vs. Grace is best played out in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.

As the story begins, Valjean is being released from 19 years on the chain gang, paroled back into the world but shackled with his conviction, which keeps him from being able to start over and make a new life. In despair, he returns to a life of petty crime.

He is caught by the police after stealing silver from a church, where a bishop had offered him shelter. But when the police bring him back to the church, everything changes. The bishop denies the charges (loved seeing Colm Wilkensen in that role!), insists the silver was a gift, and gives Valjean the most valuable silver candlesticks in the church.

Valjean deserves judgment and condemnation, but instead, he receives grace. Not just forgiveness for his sins, but an abundant, over-the-top gift. This act is the heart of Les Mis. Grace transforms Valjean. Grace transforms each of us.

He sings:

My life was a war that could never be won . . .
Yet why did I allow that man
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
I am reaching, but I fall

To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

The priest responds:
. . . By the Passion and the Blood

God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Valjean disappears from the world, breaking his parole and creating a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a factory owner and mayor. He's resolved to live a better life, to make a difference in the world, and to help everyone he can, but he's haunted by his past.

And he's hunted.

Under Hugo's beneficent gaze, Javert is not an unsympathetic character. Javert is a scrupulously religious and righteous man; we understand what motivates him more when we learn he himself was born in a prison to a convicted woman. He does not act out of malice, but out of duty to the Law.
Javert says:

Mine is the way of the Lord
And so it has been and so it is written

And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword . . .
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

There is no mercy for Javert. There is no grace. He wants only to capture Valjean and bring him to justice---back to prison for breaking his parole.

The contrast of Javert and Valjean is deliberate and clear. Valjean is determined to live a life worthy of the grace he's received, and his sense of calling leads him to radical sacrifice for the sake of others. Javert, on the other hand, lives with unflinching loyalty to the law. His confidence in the law makes him utterly certain of both his own righteousness and also Valjean's sinfulness.

The story sets these two on a collision course, a head-on crash between law and grace. Just as grace saves Valjean in the beginning, it is ultimately grace that he must count on in the end. As Javert pursues him, we see the effects of grace on a sinner, we see the oppressive power of both the law and someone's past, and we see the incomprehensibility of grace to a life ruled by the law.

Javert's passion for the Law clouds his vision of who God is. In a telling moment late in the story, Valjean is given a gun by revolutionaries and left with instructions to kill a bound and captive Javert. Instead Valjean cuts the ropes and sets him free.
This unexpected mercy triggers a profound spiritual crisis in Javert - but there the parallel ends. In Javert's legalistic scheme of the world, there is no room for mercy and he cannot comprehend or accept it. Valjean's acceptance of grace leads to new life. Javert's rejection of grace leads to suicide.
This story resonates for two reasons. First, the audience can identify with a world of tragedy and disappointment. We all feel that sense of grinding sorrow, and wonder if there's any hope for those who are sick, who suffer injustice, and who long to start anew. We're all discouraged by the constant onslaught of bad news, and we dream dreams of places where hope is high, life is worth living, and God is merciful.
Second, Les Miserable answers those doubts with hope for redemption. There is a way to start afresh. There is a grace that surpasses, that sets us free from the burdens of our past, and that leads us home to God.

For me, one line sums the whole, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Love does change everything.

How beautiful that it's releasing on Christmas Day, when the Law and Grace are celebrated throughout the world.   Jesus endured the grinding struggles of the world, born in a stable, hunted by evil men, and suffering alongside (and ultimately for) us. He not only announced a hope for redemption, but he also single-handedly accomplished it for us.

In the light of the gospel, a story like Les Miserables isn't simply uplifting; it's a call to remember how great a salvation we have.

I recently came across this quote from Victor Hugo: There are moments when whatever the attitude of the body, the heart is on its knees.
Ah, how Hugo understood our human condition! 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you Wendy for putting words to my emotion! I fell in love with the story as I read it in the original french for my summer school French III class with Mr. LeValley, at Edgewater High School in Orlando FL, way back in 1963. I slogged through the entire thing because I was SO inspired! I learned a lot of French because of that, and I've forgotten most of the French, but the spirit endures! I can't wait to see this version (I've already seen all the others ever done, I'm sure)!

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